Macbeth: A Tragedy


Macbeth (3)

At the outset let’s attempt to define what we mean by ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’.  No one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition of it, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean tragedy, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Therefore, the best way to begin the study of any tragedy is to do what we have summarised above: describe the main elements of tragedy itself, say what happens and how it happens, and take stock of the qualities which are usually associated with the tragic hero.  Shakespeare’s tragic hero is always a man (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) of exceptional nature, a great man with more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions, and more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being often torn by an internal struggle.    We see our hero set out on a particular course of action and because of a ‘fatal flaw’ (Aristotle’s ‘hamartia‘) in his character he suffers ‘reversals of fortune’ and brings suffering on himself and others; he brings about his own death and the deaths of many others.  Macbeth succumbs to his powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  He moves along a preordained path through questioning, to awareness of his wrongdoing and finally to perception.  He undertakes a course of action which is credible and probable and the inevitable direction of the hero’s movement is from prosperity to adversity, from centrality to isolation.  This is well expressed by Chaucer’s Monk:

 Tragedy means a certain kind of story,

As old books tell, of those who fell from glory,

People that stood in great prosperity

And were cast down out of their high degree

Into calamity and so they died.

(The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill, 1951, p. 212)

An essential tragic requirement is that the hero must be ‘a great man’ – a man of some status in society.  The essential features here are moral stature and greatness of personality.  In Shakespearian tragedy, such qualities are invariably associated with eminent people (Chaucer’s men of ‘high degree’) engaged in great events.  The hero in any tragedy must be a man who can command our earnest good will, a man whose fortunes interest and concern us.  We identify with him in his suffering; he must be a man who reminds us strongly of our humanity, whom we can accept as standing for us  –  (‘There but for the grace of God go I’).  Unless this sympathy for the tragic hero is maintained to the end the dramatist has failed in his essential task.

The tragic hero inevitably meets with disaster due to his unrealised and unforeseen failures.  He consciously sets out to undertake a specific course of action, ‘I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat (Act I, Scene vii).  However, he now has no control over the consequences of his actions.  The notion of blindness is appropriate to his condition here, just as that of recovered sight is appropriate to his later recognition of what he has done and what he has become as a result.  The Golden Rule is that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’.  When he decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, Macbeth deprives himself of his freedom: his life now follows a determined and inescapable pattern after the fatal act.  In this regard it should be said that although Macbeth may appear to be – and is commonly described as – a play about ambition and its effects, it is not fundamentally that.  To stress ambition as the source of Macbeth’s tragic error is a case of false emphasis.  What happens is that he is tempted by forces hostile to his good into proving their predictions true.  In his efforts to fulfil a fated plan he is destroyed (just like Oedipus); these efforts lead him to forge a chain of crime from which he cannot break free.

The problem of Macbeth’s ‘motivation’ or lack of it is often given a central place in discussions of the play.  If he does not strongly covet the crown, he has no logical motive for killing Duncan.  Shakespeare does not present him as a man driven by an unquenchable ambition for power.  Indeed critics of the play have found his conduct wildly improbable, his murder of Duncan completely out of character.  When he is first tempted, he is racked by feelings of horror and guilt; the thought of murder makes his heart knock at his ribs and his hair stand on end; he has the conscience of a good man.  The problem, for some critics, is to believe in the transformation of the conscience-stricken figure of the early scenes into the ‘butcher’ and ‘hell-hound’ of the later ones.  His later murders are even more difficult to explain in terms of ‘logical’ motivation.  His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’, yet surely his real target should be Fleance, since Banquo himself can never, if the witches are to be trusted (and Macbeth trusts them), be a danger.  Still, it is Banquo’s murder, not Fleance’s, which occupies most of his attention.  This goes to show that tragedy, not unlike real life, does not always conform to neat, logical packaging – what is important is that Shakespeare is exploring here the progress of a man towards self-destruction.  We marvel at the fact that he has the capacity to commit acts, which seem to violate his essential good nature.

Central to our definition of tragedy is the process referred to earlier as ‘reversal of fortune’, which is what happens when the hero achieves the opposite effect to what he meant or expected.  In tragedy, as has been stated already, the hero undertakes a specific course of action which leads to suffering and awareness at the end.  In their blindness, both the Macbeth’s believe that if they usurp Duncan’s throne they will live happily ever after; what they actually achieve is almost total misery culminating in ruin.

Aristotle’s final criterion for good tragedy was that the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, that is, be left with a mixture of feelings, of pity and fear at the end of the performance.  This is true of Macbeth, the sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, while the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Shakespeare does a wonderful balancing act in Macbeth. The audience maintain their sympathy for Macbeth, the tragic hero, while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph.  This is achieved with Macduff’s final gory victory over Macbeth. Malcolm can now assume his rightful place on the throne.  Order has finally been restored – for the time being at least!


Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet (2)

 In his sometimes irreverent guide to some of Shakespeare’s tragedies[1], Fintan O’Toole sums up Hamlet, our noble tragic hero, by asserting that:

Hamlet is a slob, a shirker.  He has a job to do and won’t do it.  He keeps persuading himself that there is a good reason for not getting on with the job in hand.  He is certainly unwell and possibly evil.  The problem of Hamlet is Hamlet.  Hamlet is there to teach us a lesson: when faced with a difficult and unpalatable task, we must stiffen our upper lips, put our consciences in the deep freeze, and get on with it.  Otherwise, we will come to a bad end.

No Shakespeare play gives rise to so many difficulties of interpretation as Hamlet, and none has provoked so many conflicting responses.  O’Toole goes on to give the alternative view saying that while Hamlet is guilty of delay and indecision, this is merely a flaw in his essentially noble nature.  So, students beware!  The one certain lesson that the unwary student can, perhaps, learn is that very few confident assertions can be made about several fundamental aspects of the play, that even the most plausible interpretations tend to run into awkward objections.  Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, his delay, his treatment of Ophelia, his attitude to the revenger’s role: these vital matters have stimulated conflicting and incompatible responses and ‘explanations’ for centuries!

The situation is reminiscent of the one described in the poem by John Godfrey Saxe about the six blind men from Hindustan who went to investigate an elephant,

‘that each by observation

 Might satisfy his mind’.

They concluded in turn that the elephant most resembled a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope.  Like Hamlet’s critics, each was reporting on a part rather than the whole, which they had no means of conceiving, and each report, like the Hamlet ones, had something to recommend it.  Hamlet, we learn from its critical investigators, is about death, about melancholy, about the ethics of vengeance; the delay is due to Hamlet’s skepticism, his moral scruples, his laziness and procrastination; it is simply a relic from an older play, or he doesn’t really delay at all.  Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s noblest conceptions, or he is a flawed, sinister figure.  The poet’s final pronouncement will serve us well as we investigate further:

‘Though each was partly in the right

They all were in the wrong’.

Hamlet is a complex, multi-dimensional character as befits arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragic hero creation.  He feels loyalty towards his murdered father; shows great bravery in confronting the supernatural on the battlements and in accepting the fencing challenge; he is a moral purist; he is an idealist; he has pursued refinements through scholarly study; he destroys the sanity of his former girlfriend; he suffers the ‘melancholy of deep grief’ according to his step-father; he exercises a rapier-like wit; despises showiness and yet treats those lower in rank with courtesy and respect; values true friendship such as Horatio’s; despises flattery, hypocrisy, lust and excessive drinking; accepts a mission to purge Denmark of corruption; impulsively murders Polonius; chillingly plots the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; violates the sanctity of Ophelia’s grave; lectures his mother about her sex life; forgives his rival Laertes; brutally executes the usurper Claudius; delays action and indirectly causes a bloodbath in the Court.  Surely, this ‘noble’ hero, as Horatio describes him, is worthy of our close attention?

On the positive side of the argument, Fortinbras finally asserts that Hamlet would have proven ‘most royally’ as the next king but this sounds very like the victorious captain of a Knockaderry team commiserating with the losers on their brave but fruitless performance or is it merely a gracious compliment, such as we often hear at funerals?  When Horatio speaks his final tribute to Hamlet’s nobility though, it commands respect because of the speaker’s record.  Horatio is honest and upright throughout the play, unlike Fortinbras or Laertes.  In Hamlet’s words, Horatio is not ‘passion’s slave’.  His praise of Hamlet therefore deserves some scrutiny.

The issue of whether Hamlet is noble is, however, not always clear-cut.  He accepts an assignment and delays carrying it out, with fatal consequences.  During the course of the play he feigns madness by assuming ‘an antic disposition’ or temporarily becomes mentally ill, or both:  ‘I am but mad north-northwest’.  Insanity and nobility would seem opposites.  However, Hamlet eventually achieves clarity and defines his purpose:

He that hath killed my king, and whor’d my mother;

                         Popp’d in between the election and my hopes;

Thrown out his angle for my proper life, and with such cozenage –

Is’t not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm?

Here he outlines four transgressions by Claudius.  Isn’t he noble in character here?  He is clear minded and on the moral high ground and recognises his moral duty.

Initially, when the Ghost orders his son Hamlet to avenge him, ‘nobility’ is a question of obedience and loyalty.  However, Hamlet needs to find his own proof in order to be able to kill Claudius with a clear conscience – as a true avenger would.  To kill, even an evil man, is a ‘cursed spite’.  Hamlet struggles to find a clear path whereby his conscience will allow him to kill Claudius.  He experiences confusion and suffers psychologically.  He wants to justify becoming the avenger.  Hamlet’s inner struggle makes his character seem noble.  Hamlet may be considered noble in wanting to seek evidence of Claudius’ guilt.

Hamlet eventually achieves ‘perfect conscience’ but this clarity of purpose arrives too late to avert:

                        Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters;

                        Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;

                        And in this upshot, purposes mistook

                        Fall’n on the inventors’ heads.

Horatio’s summary of the plot in these words shows the catastrophe that marked the end of the play.  The phrase ‘Cunning and forc’d cause’ points to the evil of those around Hamlet.  Are we meant to assume then that Hamlet is the opposite of these evil and selfish characters?  But if, on the other hand, he had held to the Ghost’s initial word and killed the ‘villain’ Claudius and saved all that carnage, would he still be ‘noble’?

What is meant by this term, ‘noble’ anyway?  We have come to consider decency and integrity as essential elements of a ‘noble’ character.  What do we find in the course of the play?  The Ghost, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet and Humankind in general are all depicted as ‘noble’ by some character or another throughout the play.  The variety of characters, to which the word ‘noble’ is applied, gives rise to confusion about its true significance.  Claudius claims there is ‘nobility’ in the affection he bears Hamlet.  This is a piece of hollow rhetoric, used to persuade the court and Gertrude of Claudius’ commitment to family values.  Therefore, if ‘noble’ is a mutual trait of Hamlet and Claudius it is hardly flattering to Hamlet in the context it is used in this scene (Act I, Scene ii).

We have come to see Polonius as a deceitful, self-serving courtier who is morally redundant and a hypocrite.  After all he is a ‘wretch’d, rash, intruding fool’ who would violate the privacy of his own son, daughter and even that of the Queen for political ends.  And yet, Claudius and Laertes refer to Polonius as a ‘noble father’ in Act IV.  The word ‘noble’ here again seems empty and hypocritical.

Hamlet refers to Laertes as ‘a very noble youth’.  But at that very moment the ‘noble’ Laertes is about to murder him with the dreaded ‘unction’ that he purchased from a ‘mountebank’.  Laertes, then, is the third character in the play to discredit the concept of nobility.

What then of Hamlet?  Does he deserve Horatio’s eulogy at the end of the play?  Well, he doesn’t act nobly all the time.  Ophelia is distraught at his behaviour and he inflicts severe damage on her frail psyche in the Nunnery Scene:

            Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

   He behaves cruelly towards his mother:

           These words like daggers enter in mine ears.

He impulsively slays Polonius in headstrong over-reaction and then bizarrely hides the corpse – to the Court’s dismay.  Later he callously arranges for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, taking it upon himself to dispense summary justice.  For all his hatred of pretense, he plays many deceptive roles, not least his famed ‘antic disposition’.  He also uses deception to trap the king into revealing his guilt in The Mousetrap.  Thus he fights great evil with lesser evil.  He also abuses Polonius, ‘These tedious old fools!’   He has a morbid sense of humour throughout the play, delighting in such ghoulish pranks such as hiding Polonius’ corpse and depicting a beggar digesting the king.  He hurts Ophelia by talking suggestively about ‘country matters’ and he also interferes in his mother’s private life with such crude images as:

            To live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,

            Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty!

In Act V he explodes in furious rivalry against Laertes and leaps into Ophelia’s grave.  His surrender to endless brooding, ‘thinking too precisely on the event’, multiplies the carnage at the end of the play.  Knowing ‘the time is out of joint’ he could have set ‘it right’ by killing Claudius earlier in the Prayer Scene.  Then many lives would have been spared.  All of these actions, inactions and utterances of Hamlet surely argue the case against his having ‘a noble heart’.

There is, like Fintan O’Toole’s alternative perspective earlier, a counter argument.  Horatio’s praise of Hamlet’s nobility is also well founded.  Hamlet lacks pomp and arrogance: ‘I am very glad to see you’ he announces to Marcellus.  We know that his political clout is due to his great popularity.  Though he is a Prince he greets Horatio as ‘my good friend’.  He feels intense loyalty to his father and to Horatio.  Perhaps his desire to check the veracity of the ghost’s story is far more responsible than believing the ghost who could after all have been the devil in disguise.  He despises false shows of grief: ‘Seems madam? Nay it is.  I know not ‘seems’.  He is sincere and experiences profound and genuine grief and his revulsion of falsehood is put to good and humorous use against such people as Polonius and Osric.  He sees the corruption around him and refuses to compromise his own position: ‘Tis an unweeded garden’.  His complaint about human dishonesty evokes a cynical echo in our modern hearts:

               To be honest, as this world goes,

is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.

Hamlet is an intelligent scholar:

               There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio,

               than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

It can be said, therefore, that he has a refined and poetic understanding:

What a piece of work is man!  How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!  In form and moving how express and admirable!  In action how like an angel!  In apprehension how like a god!  The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

In this speech he shows profound empathy for his fellow humans.  He mainly shows intolerance towards deceiving schemers and those who seek self-advancement.

In short, he is a radical thinker who despises the inequality of his day.  Above all he is a man of conscience: ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.’  He seeks to know himself better than any man and he examines every facet of himself.  He despises his own flaw, inaction: ‘I must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words’.  We would agree with Horatio’s final verdict if we believe the praise of Ophelia when she calls Hamlet: ‘The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword, the expectancy and rose of the fair state.’

Overall then, Hamlet is a mixture of admirable traits and thoughts and less than admirable impulses such as his maltreatment of women and old men.  He struggles for certainty and suffers greatly because certainty is so elusive.  He is fatally flawed by a tendency to procrastinate.  Eventually he achieves spiritual insight:  ’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’.  He matures as the play develops, learning wisdom from his suffering journey towards self-realisation.  But self-knowledge comes too late to avert tragedy.  If he is noble, he also has to overcome some imperfections.  He is only human after all!

But clearly his sense of morality is enormous.  For much of the play even he couldn’t decide what was ‘nobler in the mind’ to endure or take action.  But we must remember that he was ‘loved of the distracted multitude’ and ‘the observ’d of all observers’.   Does Hamlet possess nobility within his heart?  The answer is yes, but we must qualify this statement with the rider that he is not always a paragon of nobility.  Ultimately it defies us to ‘pluck out the heart of’ his ‘mystery’, to re-use his memorable comment to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  But we are ultimately bound to accept Horatio’s tribute to his noble heart as a fitting epitaph for so complicated a tragic hero.

Differences over such matters, great and small, continue to make Hamlet the most challenging of plays, and the most controversial tragedy of them all.


[1] O’ Toole, Fintan, Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life – A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy, 2002, Granta Books London – New York




















Image Patterns in King Lear



One of the possible questions on your Leaving Cert Higher Level Paper 2 in June may well demand a good knowledge of the imagery in this great tragedy.  As in all the great Shakespearean tragedies, imagery is very effectively used in King Lear to highlight and illustrate the major themes of the play.

These notes will focus on some of the most important image patterns such as

  • Animal Imagery
  • Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action
  • Clothes Imagery: Appearance V’s Reality
  • Imagery of Sight and Blindness
  • The Fool’s use of Rich Imagery

Animal Imagery

Animal imagery is dominant in the play.  For many people, these are the images that leave the most lasting impression.  We notice that the animals named are predatory: monsters of the deep, the wolf, the boar, the tiger, the vulture, the serpent, the dragon.  This pattern of vicious animal imagery underlines the theme of predatory humans who feed off one another in Lear’s degenerate kingdom.  The critic A.C. Bradley suggested that as we read the play, ‘the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to have entered the bodies of these mortals, horrible in their venom, savagery, lust, deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness’ (Shakespearian Tragedy). Goneril and Regan, in particular, are seen as all-devouring creatures.  The Fool describes their behaviour towards Lear in terms of the cuckoo and its young:

                        “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

                        That it had its head bit off by its young.”

Goneril and Regan are persistently seen as beasts of prey, or as monsters:

  • More hideous … than the sea-monster” – Act I, iv.
  • “detested kite”, “a serpent’s tooth”, “wolfish visage”, “like a vulture” –Act II, iv
  • “boorish fangs” – Act III, Sc vii
  • “tigers, not daughters” – Act IV, ii

This type of imagery underlines the viciousness of the two characters.  They are seen as creatures that operate by the law of the jungle.  They are very dangerous.  They can devour all that is human and prey on those who are weaker than themselves.

On the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf.  Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals.  Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”.  Man himself seems no more than an animal.  His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”.  Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act III, iv).

In the terrible world of Lear’s vision, man is a beast.  Yet, something may come out of this elemental existence on the heath.  We notice that the animal imagery changes as Lear’s recovery gets underway.  The animals mentioned now are those which convey feelings of pleasure.  In Act V, iii a much-chastened Lear tells Cordelia:

            “We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage, …”

            “We’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

            At gilded butterflies…..”

These animal images leave two strong impressions.  The primary one is that humanity seems to be reverting to a bestial condition.  Secondly, there is a close association between the animal images and the suggestion of bodily pain, horror and suffering.  As well as savage wolves, tigers and other predators there are ‘darting’ serpents, a ‘sharp-toothed’ vulture, stinging adders, gnawing rats, and whipped, whining, mad and biting dogs.

Therefore, the animal imagery throughout King Lear is a powerful and imaginative expression of the play’s major themes – how predatory human beings destroy decent values by operating the law of the jungle, and how the inevitable result is pain and suffering.


Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action

King Lear is the most painful and harrowing of the tragedies.  All through we are conscious of strife, buffeting, strain and bodily suffering to the point of agony.  The images involving the human body are particularly grim.  We have, as Caroline Spurgeon has remarked, the repeated image of the body in ‘anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, scalded, dislocated, flayed, tortured, and finally broken on the rack’ (Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us).

Even death is seen by Kent as a welcome release from torture, which is almost the permanent condition of those who live in the Lear universe.  As Lear is dying, Kent makes the appeal:

O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer … (V, iii, 312).

Elsewhere he sees himself wrenched and tortured by an ‘engine’, and his heart about to break ‘into a hundred thousand flaws’.  Gloucester’s ‘flawed heart’ is ‘cracked’ and finally is said to ‘burst smilingly’.  Gloucester’s response to Edmund’s ‘revelations’ about Edgar is full of violent and agitated images.  Within the space of ten lines, Gloucester uses the following: scourged, falls off, cracked, mutinies, machinations, ruinous disorders, discord.  Gloucester himself is subjected to cruel and violent treatment: bound to a chair, plucked by the beard, his beard ‘ravished’ from his chin, ‘tied to a stake’, like a bear ‘to stand the course’.  He has his eyes gouged out, and is ‘thrust out of’ the gates.

The idea that human beings can easily lapse into the condition and behaviour of wild animals is often held out as a possibility in King Lear. Lear is certain that Regan, in his defence, will with her nails, ‘flay that wolfish visage’ of Goneril.  The most striking example of this violent, bestial imagery is Gloucester’s explanation to Regan for sending Lear to Dover:

                        I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister

In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs. (III,vii, 56)

Even the generally mild Albany declares that if he were to follow his natural instincts, he would ‘dislocate’ and ‘tear the flesh and bones’ of Goneril.  The generally violenmt tendency of the language and imagery of the play is summed up in Lear’s ironic promise to Cordelia:

He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven

And fire us hence like foxes.  Wipe those eyes;

The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell

Ere they shall make us weep.  We’ll see ‘em starved first. (V, iii, 22)


Clothing Imagery: Appearance and Reality

From first to last, there is a steady emphasis in the play on the contrast between man and his clothes.  At the centre of the play, Lear stresses the function of clothing as a symbol of class and wealth, and as a means of hiding perversions of justice:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear

Robes and furred gowns hide all.  Plate sin with gold

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw doth pierce it. (IV, vi, 164)


Lear is the first to mention clothing imagery when he declares in his opening speech that he will “divest (us) both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state…”.

Clothes become a symbol of luxury – “Thou art a lady…” a desperate Lear tells an obstinate Regan in Act II, iv:

            “If only to go warm were gorgeous,

            Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t

            Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”

In the Storm Scene, there is much significance in Lear’s tearing off his clothes and his joining “poor Tom” in the naked state.  This gesture allows Lear to become “unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal”.  It is only when he experiences this reduced state that Lear can truly identify with the poorest of his subjects.  Naked to the elements, he now knows what it is like to “bide the pelting of the pitiless storm”.

The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in Shakespearean plays.  In King Lear, the image of clothing and its opposite, nakedness, is the imaginative expression of this theme.  Clothes are seen as a camouflage to hide injustice and to symbolise power and privilege.  It is a much wiser Lear who tells us in Act IV, vi, that things – and people – are not always what they seem.  The outward trappings of wealth and privilege can sometimes conceal corruption.  Likewise, poverty in one’s personal appearance can adversely affect the attitude of others towards us:

            “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.

            Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.

            Plate sin with gold

            And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks:

            Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”

Lear has travelled a long way along the road to wisdom since he was fooled by Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery in Act I.

The imagery of clothing in King Lear is closely linked to the theme of disguise.  Just as “robes and furr’d gowns hide all”, Goneril’s and Regan’s hypocrisy is disguised by their honey’d words at the beginning of the play.  Those who do not resort to disguising their true feelings must suffer – i.e. Cordelia and Kent.  In fact, Kent quickly finds that unless he disguises his appearance, his survival is at risk.  Edgar too must assume a new identity if he is to stay alive – he becomes the naked “poor Tom” who is at the mercy of the elements on the heath.

The image of clothing is, therefore, a central one in King Lear.  It is used most effectively to bring out the theme of appearance versus reality.  The notion of disguise is also linked to the clothes imagery in the play.  A key element in the tragedy is that virtue can only survive if disguised, while vice can parade openly and be rewarded. And we wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s world!

Blindness in Lear

Imagery of Sight and Blindness

The frequent allusions to eyes, sight, and seeing are significant throughout the play.  They begin as early as the first scene when Lear expels the sincere and loyal Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Notice Kent’s emotional plea in reply:

            “See better, Lear and let me still remain

            The true blank of thine eye.”

These words underline Lear’s lack of insight, i.e. mental sight.  The theme will be developed from this point onwards.  Before long, Lear is forced to acknowledge his lack of insight.  In Act I, iv, he is beginning to see Goneril in her true colours.  The truth about his “thankless child” is painful for him: his “eyes” have deceived him, and in bitterness he wants to cast them out:

            “… Old fond eyes,

               Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,

And cast you, with the waters that you loose,

To temper clay….  “

The anguished king returns to this theme again later:

            “Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?

            Where are his eyes?”

Lear’s redemption is linked to his painful acquisition of the personal insight to himself and to others which he so blatantly lacks at the beginning of the play. His frequent references to sight, eyes, seeing, illustrate and highlight this theme.

Shakespeare also uses the sight/blindness imagery for another purpose.  Through it he merges the main plot and sub-plot of the play, i.e. Lear’s betrayal by his daughters and Gloucester’s betrayal by Edmund.  Gloucester, like Lear, does not know his children.  He is fooled by Edmund and mistakes Edgar’s honesty for deception.  This truth is brutally conveyed to him by Regan in Act III, vii, as Cornwall plucks out the old man’s eyes.  Paradoxically, Gloucester only begins to acquire insight when his physical sight is taken from him.  Within seconds of his becoming physically blind, in Act III, vii, he sees that Edmund truly “hates” him.  Gloucester’s realisation of his foolishness is poignant:

            “O my follies!  Then Edgar was abused.

            Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!”

Gloucester may now be “an eyeless villain” according to Cornwall, but in reality he is a much more “seeing” man than before.  His reply to the Old Man who tells him in Act IV, i, “you cannot see your way” is, therefore, highly symbolic.

            “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;

            I stumbled when I saw”

Gloucester has acquired knowledge and wisdom.  The loss of his physical sight is meant to be understood in that context.

The parallel between Lear’s predicament and Gloucester’s, between main plot and sub-plot, is highlighted in Lear’s words to the blind Gloucester in Act IV, i,:

            “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.

            Look with thine ears…”

Edgar sums up the paradox later in the same scene: “Reason in madness!”

Through the imagery of sight/blindness in King Lear, Shakespeare parallels the main plot and sub-plot, and this highlights the paradox at the very centre of the play.


Richness in the Imagery used by the Fool

The Fool in King Lear is one of the most interesting comic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays.  His language is rich, his thoughts at times profound.  It is worth looking more closely at some of the imagery which he uses.

From the first moment of his appearance in the play, the Fool begins his commentary on Lear’s foolish behaviour.  His first action is to offer Kent his “coxcomb” – his foolish cap.  He explains that Kent has a right to the coxcomb  “for taking one’s part that’s out of favour”.  The Fool then goes on to compare the Truth to a dog that must be whipped out of sight and confined to its kennel.  In the universe of hypocrisy and deception which Lear has now created, Truth, as always, will be the first casualty.

As Act I, iv, progresses, the Fool is relentless in pursuit of Lear and his folly.  Although disguised in the form of nonsense rhymes, the Fool’s message is consistent: the real Fool is Lear himself.  In one of these rhymes, the Fool distinguishes between the Fool who wears “motley”, i.e. the Fool’s uniform, and the real Fool who wears ordinary clothes, i.e. Lear.

At times the Fool is more direct: “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away”.  He keeps up this piercing banter until Lear threatens to have him whipped.  The Fool’s response is sharp:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying…. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing ‘i the middle”.

As Act I is drawing to a close, Lear is beginning to question his own wisdom in giving everything to his daughters.  Goneril has already complained about the size of his retinue of followers, and the Fool’s premonitions look like becoming a reality.  Lear is troubled, and his appeal to the fool now is urgent:

            “Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

From now on, the Fool will also be mindful of his master’s suffering as well as his folly.

In Act II, iv, the Fool’s language is dense with significant imagery.  He keeps up the meaningful rhymes which take the edge off his poignant commentary:

            “Fathers that wear rags

            Do make their children blind,

            But fathers that wear bags

            Shall see their children kind”.

He also uses the imagery of a wheel careering down a hill and out of control to depict Lear’s fate for Kent.  He warns Kent that he will be crushed if he doesn’t release his hold on the “wheel”:

“Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; …”

When Lear comes to the verge of emotional collapse in this scene, the Fool switches to nonsense to try and retrieve the situation:

Lear:   “O me, my heart, my rising heart! But, down

Fool:   Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried “Down, wantons, down!”  ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”

As the climax of the play approaches, there is poignancy in the Fool’s attempts to save his master from total despair.  He relents in his torture of Lear and concentrates instead on urging him to take care of himself:

“O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o’ door” …

But the caustic note is not completely gone.  When Kent asks “Who’s there?”, the fool’s reply is deliberately ambiguous:

            “Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece,

            That’s a wise man and a fool”.

One is in no doubt that he means to convey how these roles have been reversed.

Through the imagery of his speech, the Fool acts as a kind of intelligent chorus in King Lear.  He never lets us forget the tragedy of what is happening on the stage.  His loyalty to, and concern for, his master is touching.  He is, perhaps, the play’s most endearing character.




Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.


Further Reading

Single Text Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

These notes are directed mainly at those Leaving Cert students (Higher Level) who are undertaking the study of King Lear as a Comparative Text


Shakespeare’s King Lear was written around the year 1605 and basically sets good (as represented by Cordelia, Edgar and Kent and later Lear) and evil (represented by Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund) in opposition.  The play has invited its fair share of controversy.  Some critics have called it the finest of Shakespeare’s plays, others have accused the play of being too pessimistic even for a tragedy. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan world (shortly before and after 1600) reflects, in some respects, a very different society to the many other societies and cultures depicted in your other Comparative Texts.

Shakespeare’s tragedy reflects the concerns and aspirations of Elizabethan society.  It also conforms to the conventions of the theatre of this period.  The publication date of King Lear in 1605 places it among the later works of Shakespeare and it must be said that this was a period of rapid change and expansion, ruled over by Elizabeth I, who ascended the throne in 1558 and James I who succeeded her in 1603.

The reign of Elizabeth brought about great change in England which resulted partly from her vibrant personality.  She made the monarchy as lavish a spectacle as Shakespeare made his theatre.  Like Queen Victoria in the 19th. century, Elizabeth’s aim was to make the monarchy a popular and powerful institution.  Unlike Victoria, however, Elizabeth was an exhibitionist who believed in dazzling her subjects with her regal splendour.  Her lavishly decorated dresses (Remember Dame Judy Dench in Shakespeare in Love?), magnificent coach and enormous troupe of servants provided a sense of pageantry for the population who lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she made her way to the provincial towns and cities.

The Elizabethan court set new trends in style, art, literature and drama but the main concern of Elizabeth was to create a politically stable and united country.  This concern is illustrated in the desperate measures she took to secure her position on the throne, for example the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the suppression of the Geraldine Rebellion in Munster and the subsequent beheading of our own Earl of Desmond!

When Elizabeth died in 1603 her successor, James IV of Scotland, was also a keen supporter of the theatre and he bestowed on Shakespeare’s company the privileged title of the ‘King’s Men’.  This privilege ensured the acceptance of Shakespeare and his company within the Royal Court and his continued prosperity as a playwright.

The tragic nature of King Lear is not entirely at odds with the real events which were unfolding in the court of James I.  James was the first monarch to rule (however briefly) over the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales and he was very fond of feasting, drinking, hunting, and the splendid trappings of monarchy.  These examples of James’s character are evident in Lear who is willing to leave the affairs of state in the hands of Goneril and Regan while he enjoys feasting, drinking, hunting and riding with his knights.


Lear is an old man when the play opens.  He decides to divide up his kingdom by means of a childish love-test based on words.  When Cordelia refuses to co-operate she is stripped of her dowry and banished to France.  Goneril and Regan, his other two daughters, take over the kingship.  These are shrewd operators who have assessed Lear’s flaws fully.  They plot together so that they will not suffer from his senile unpredictability.  Shortly after Lear has abdicated his throne, he moves to Goneril’s house with one hundred knights.  This was one of the conditions of the agreement between them.  Here he has a violent confrontation with Goneril about the number of knights he actually needs.  Regan arrives and the love-test scene is ironically parodied; the two daughters haggling over the number of his knights is a grotesque mimicry of the love test.  Lear is cast out into the storm with his Fool and Kent.

In the parallel plot, the Earl of Gloucester has two sons.  One of them, Edmund, is illegitimate.  Edmund deceives Gloucester about Edgar, his real son, and convinces him he is a villain who is ready to murder him.  Edgar is forced to go on the run and play the role of a mad beggar.  He meets with Lear on the heath in the storm and together they reach some profound insights into human nature.  Later on, Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, the husband of Regan, for helping Lear.  Gloucester becomes filled with despair and wanders to Dover to commit suicide.  He is saved by Edgar who discloses his identity to him shortly before Gloucester dies, presumably from a heart attack.

Lear becomes reconciled with Cordelia who returns to Britain with an army from France to save him.  Both Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned by Edmund who leads the British army against the King of France.  Cordelia is hanged and Lear dies of a broken heart.

Goneril and Regan become consumed by a passionate lust for Edmund and they kill one another.  Edmund is slain by Edgar.  Only Albany, the husband of Regan, and Edgar survive to sustain and restore order to the gory state of Britain at the conclusion.


Love versus Hatred

King Lear deals with the theme of love versus hatred.  Love, in many of the texts texts on the Comparative Course, is a redemptive force and achieved only through suffering and many trials and tribulations.  Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, suffers the contempt and abuse of her sisters who vie for their father’s power and kingdom.

Lear’s oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, have the same ignoble and cruel nature as many other characters iwe come across on the Comparative Course.  They are jealous of Cordelia because she is her father’s favourite child, a fact which Lear does not try to conceal.  Cordelia is very forthright in her manner.  She believes in love but not at the cost of truth and decency.  When Lear establishes his love test to divide his kingdom, Cordelia is faced with two choices.  Either she lies to her father and tells him she loves him to the exclusion of everyone and everything in the world, or, she tells him the truth, that she loves him as a daughter should love her father, with duty and respect.

She decides to tell the truth, arguing, ‘I love your Majesty according to my bond no more nor less’ (Act I, Scene I).  The word love is used many times and in different contexts in this first scene.  It is obvious that Goneril and Regan abuse the term and take advantage of their father’s desperate need for love.  Lear’s over-indulgent behaviour to his older daughters make them despise him and think only of themselves and how they might prosper at his demise. So Cordelia is banished by her father for speaking the truth.  She acknowledges that had she ‘a still soliciting eye, and such a tongue’ (Act I, Scene I) as her sisters have, she would have benefited from the division of the kingdom.

It is interesting that Cordelia is forced to uproot herself from her home and seek whatever solace she can with strangers, in a strange environment.  Cordelia is immediately betrothed to France, who instantly recognises her virtues.  His intention is to make her Queen of France and he argues that his love for her encompasses his respect for her actions.  However, Cordelia’s trials are only beginning.  The love she bears for her father will be tested later in the play, as will her compassion and forgiveness.

The evil and cruel natures of Goneril and Regan become obvious as soon as Cordelia leaves the court.  Their language is suddenly cruel and vindictive.  They jeer their father for his approaching senility and feebleness of age.  The significance of Regan’s observation that her father had ‘ever but slenderly known himself’ (Act I, scene I) is now apparent to the reader because of his banishment of Cordelia and Kent.

The sub-plot in King Lear is also important in highlighting this theme and we see the deception of Edmund who takes advantage of his father’s kindness and genuine affection, for his own corrupt desires.  He is incapable of love and his references to love in the play are always debased and carnal.  His character is without any moral code.  His desire is to ultimately destroy whatever is good and pure.  His corruption of the purity of love almost destroys the characters closest to him in the play.

Edmund deceives his father and brother by pretending to be a good son and brother.  He deludes both Goneril and Regan, pretending to love them, but caring about neither.  In fact he enjoys watching these women scheme and plot against each other to win his love.

The marriages of Goneril and Regan are symbolic of their unloving and primitive natures.  Goneril’s husband, Albany, is a weak character at the beginning of the play and seems completely overshadowed by his wife’s hunger for power.  However, as the play progresses, Albany’s function changes from that of mere observer of his wife’s actions to a critic of her unnatural behaviour.  Regan and Cornwall’s marriage is based on Regan’s willingness to be as vicious as her husband.  Her love of power is insatiable and she confuses love with sexual intrigue, which is evident in her behaviour towards Edmund.

The unrestrained passions of Goneril and Regan present fascinating character portrayals for the audience of the play.  Goneril and Regan are presented in highly dramatic sequences on stage.  The visual impact of their actions is overwhelming.

Lear experiences hatred initially in his contact with Goneril.   She is indifferent to him and she instructs her servant Oswald to be as negligent of her father as he wishes.  Lear reacts with a terrible anger.  His language is full of hatred and revenge.  Words like ‘thwart’, ‘torment’, and ‘contempt’ are all used against Goneril.  Lear’s anger springs from his sense of injustice at the treatment meted out to him.  Having given everything to his daughters, they turn on him.  The language and images used by Lear indicate their inability either to give or understand love.  They are described as ‘wolves with flaying nails’, ‘serpents’, ‘foxes’, ‘crabs’, ‘vultures’, ‘a boil’, ‘a plague sore’, and ‘an embossed carbuncle’.  These images deprive the daughters of their humanity but, more importantly, they deny their maternal instincts, traditionally associated with nurturing and love.  The ferocious nature of these images prepares the reader for the cruelty of Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund later in the play.

Eventually Lear rejects Goneril and Regan and sets out on a journey of self-discovery.  It is vital for Lear that he rejects his two cruel daughters if he is to learn that love cannot be bought, that it is not a commodity.  He is helped to make this discovery by some very noble and good characters such as Cordelia, Kent and Edgar who represent the virtues of love and goodness, loyalty and truth.

Gloucester’s rash banishment of Edgar also clearly illustrates that his understanding of love is as shallow as Lear’s.  This flaw in his character means he is at the mercy of his unscrupulous son, Edmund.  The gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in Act III, scene vii, is particularly violent, but highly dramatic for the audience.  The blinding scene allows the audience to see, on stage, the distinction between sight and insight, truth and pretence.  Gloucester must lose his sight in order to gain insight and once this has happened he is reunited with Edgar, his legitimate son, who loves him.

The ‘mock trial’ which takes place between Lear, the Fool and Edgar in Act III, Scene vi, is very important in the context of helping us understand and analyse the unnatural actions of Goneril and Regan against their father.  It highlights Lear’s inability to accept that the ‘professed’ love of Goneril and Regan in Act I, Scene I, was mere pretence.  Here we see three human beings at their lowest ebb and this pathetic scene helps us to realise what the world would be like without love.  The ‘mock trial’ also allows Edgar to vent his frustration at the corruption of his treacherous brother Edmund.  It helps to contrast those in the play, who love, as Othello says, ‘not wisely but too well’, with those who debase love and seem to prosper by its abuse.

The return of Kent and particularly of Cordelia is very important for the regeneration of Lear.  Kent, having returned in disguise, to serve Lear, suffers the abuse of Lear’s daughters and servants.  Ultimately, however, it is the return of Cordelia that changes Lear.  He is astounded by her forgiveness and overwhelmed by her love for him.

The change in Lear’s character is obvious.  His hysteria has subsided and he speaks with a voice full of conviction and strength.  The audience is roused by the sense of pathos in his actions and language when Cordelia dies.  Carrying her from the place of execution, he lays her before the audience, trying in vain to find evidence of her breathing.  His grief is evident when he admits to killing the ‘slave’ who hanged her.

With her death, Lear’s only source of love is gone, and unable to bear his separation from her for a second time, he dies.  Interestingly Albany, Goneril’s husband, survives the mayhem and corruption of the evil characters in the play.

The shocking demise of Goneril and Regan emphasises their fiendish nature and the fact that they are the personification of evil as it exists in the world.  They prey upon each other and become victims of their own hatred and greed.  Both must die at the end of the play because, like Edmund and Cornwall, they have nothing to offer humanity.  They love only what benefits themselves and destroys others.


Britain and the Medieval Renaissance Court form the primary cultural background of this play.  The play deals with the culture of Kingship and Monarchy at that time.  The characters are drawn from the aristocracy or nobility.  These characters are public figures whose actions and subsequent sufferings become universalised.

The plot of the play deals with inter-family relationships and ensuing intrigue, rivalry and conflict.  Lear makes a fatal error regarding the nature of kingship at the beginning of the play: he believes he can abdicate the duties of King and merely retain, ‘the name and addition of a King’.

Lear has been King of Britain for many years, he has no male heir and so roles change and he hands over his authority to Goneril, Regan and their husbands.  In this act of abdication Lear disrupts the social order and causes a general anarchy in his kingdom.

The blinding of Gloucester is a barbaric act which coexists with the Christian insights expressed by Lear in some of the Storm Scenes and at the conclusion of the play.  In prison with Cordelia he sees them both as ‘God’s spies’, taking upon themselves the mystery of things.

The play refers to particular things such as clothes and courtly manners that are an innate part of this cultural environment.  Lear sheds these symbols of wealth – rich clothes and fine speech – in his movement towards truth.  The play shows the human being reaching truth when these false adornments of culture have been stripped away.  Lear sheds his sanity and descends to a state of physical and emotional nakedness before he is finally clothed in the truth.


 The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003.

The main thing to remember when discussing this text in relation to others on your Comparative Course is that this is a Shakespearean Tragedy, and hard though it may be to believe, King Lear is the one and only tragic hero of this text.  Traditionally, the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’ and King Lear falls into this category: he is a great king – all kings were great back then – and in the course of the play, because of his foolishness, he makes a great mistake.  Generally, in Shakespearean tragedy, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  He believed that his tragedies, including King Lear, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics.  His tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias.  He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle.  However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some flaw that contributes to his downfall.  Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy.  Lear’s flaw is his gullibility and his pride.  He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death.  Lear attempts the impossible, to give up his kingship and yet he tries to retain the trappings of power, his retinue of knights, the pomp and ceremony that goes with majesty.  However, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.

Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero.  The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured King Lear we are introduced to on the heath inspires pity, and we do leave the theatre terrified at the tragic results of Lear’s actions.

Shakespeare, in King Lear and Macbeth and Hamlet, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for the tragic hero while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.

This, therefore, was Shakespeare’s vision for this and all his other great tragedies.  It doesn’t  always sit well with modern audiences because we have differing definitions for ‘heroes’ and indeed for ‘tragedy’ as well.

 King Lear (8)



As we have already stated above, King Lear is a Shakespearean tragedy.  The general sequence of a tragic work is the story of a hero who is endowed with a fatal flaw.  This flaw causes suffering, the loss of everything and finally death.

In the context of this play, Lear’s main flaw consists of an overbearing pride and blindness to human nature.  Shortly after he has abdicated his kingship he suffers a violent confrontation with Goneril and Regan and he is forced to accept their terms or face humiliation and poverty out on the heath.

In an extreme state of degradation and suffering throughout the storm scenes he learns the meaning of life and grows in humility and self-knowledge.  All of this occurs with the help of his Fool who plays a key role here.

Likewise Gloucester is blind to the reality of human nature and fails to see through the wickedness of his son Edmund.  Ironically it is only when he is physically blinded that he attains a real insight into the truth of things.  Both characters acknowledge their earlier flaws and both develop and learn to see the real truth about people and about themselves.


This play is made up of two plots which echo one another in theme – we get two plays for the price of one!.  The deliberate parallels that are set up between the two plots add to their realism, by giving credibility to a play where the characters and events would be otherwise incredible.  Another effect of this deliberate repetition is to universalise and broaden such themes as filial ingratitude and evil.

The story and theme of the sub-plot is repeated in the main plot.  Two credulous fathers are betrayed by selfish and unscrupulous children.  Both are victims of false appearance.  Both are weak, gullible and poor judges of character.  Both lack sound judgement, both are old men.  The Fool teaches Lear while Edgar teaches Gloucester.

The Fool plays a central role in the structure of the play.  This role is primarily paradoxical – the supposedly wise King is being taught lessons of wisdom and folly by a fool.  We see this mainly in the storm scenes.  He is a foil for Lear and also a form of relief.  He counters Lear’s madness and is used almost like a chorus as he harps all the time on Lear’s transgressions.  So, his role is a curious mixture of faithful service and severe condemnation.  He offers relief to the gloom of the tragedy.

The Fool represents the voice of reality for Lear.  The Fool appears in Act I, Scene iv when Kent has just manifested his loyalty for Lear by attacking Oswald, Goneril’s cunning servant.  Lear is about to pay Kent for his action when the Fool enters and mockingly offers Kent his coxcomb.  The implication here is that Lear is a fool if he thinks he can repay people with money now that he has handed over everything to his wicked children.  The play is full of comments like this, where the Fool mocks Lear’s self-deceit, and essential blindness to human nature.  The Fool is not only Lear’s teacher but he echoes Lear’s conscience.  It is significant that Lear is given few soliloquies in the play; the implication here could be that the Fool articulates all his insights.

The relationship between Lear and his Fool is part of the tragic movement of the play; the movement downwards towards that ultimate exposure and defeat when the King is degraded to the status of the meanest of his servants.  We watch the royal sufferer being progressively stripped, first of his extraordinary power, then of ordinary human dignity, then of the very necessities of life where he is more helpless and abject than any animal.  However, there is a more dreadful consummation than this reduction to physical nakedness.  Lear hardly feels the storm because he is struggling to maintain his mental integrity, his knowledge and his reason which for him are the essential marks of humanity itself.  From the time when his agony begins and he feels his sanity threatened, he gradually becomes aware of the suffering of others: ‘Poor Fool I have one part of my heart that’s sorry for thee yet’.

In the role of the Fool we are confronted with the paradoxical reversal of wisdom and folly.  At the beginning of the play Lear and Gloucester are both blind fools.  When Lear loses his sanity his vision is enlarged; as his wits begin to leave him he begins to see the truth about himself; when they are wholly gone he begins to have spasmodic flashes of insight in which he sees the truth about the world.  The Fool prophetically exclaims that Lear would make a good Fool.  When he loses everything – his kingdom, his sanity, his honour, when he becomes an outcast from society – he attains truth.

In the hour of Lear’s helplessness during the storm on the heath, King and Fool, master and slave, become something different – the bond between them grows deeper.  In the process of madness we become aware of a relationship comprised of opposites – that of wise man and fool.  The essence of this relationship consists in a reversal of accepted values: the supposedly wise man of the opening scenes, the Lear who was in a position to have his slave whipped and exercise his own will without contradiction, has become the fool.  Through his behaviour and language, the Fool offers advice all of which is based on a practical wisdom.  The Fool, therefore, is an all-powerful auxiliary for both the main plot and the sub-plot.

When the Fool leaves the play in the last storm scene, Act IV, Scene vi, we can assume that Lear has grown in moral awareness and it remains for him to be reconciled with Cordelia.

The soliloquy is a fundamental part of the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy.  Shakespeare uses both the public and the private soliloquy in his plays and each type has a different function.  Much of Lear’s soliloquies are public and in them he articulates his condemnation of humankind.  In the Storm Scene, Act III, Scene iv, he becomes aware for the first time in his life of the full reality of poverty within his kingdom, and acknowledges that he has done nothing to remedy the situation.  Likewise Edgar, Edmund and Kent use the public soliloquy to give reasons for the way they are acting.  Edmund is the character who has the most soliloquies and these serve to indicate how he will manipulate events and use opportunities to his own advantage.  All of his soliloquies show him to be exceptionally intelligent, cynical and unprincipled.  Edgar’s three soliloquies serve different functions.  He gives us an insight into the quality of life in the kingdom as it existed under Lear, the Bedlam Beggar who was pelted in the villages and looked upon as mad.  He also plays the role of moraliser or preacher of good and evil in his soliloquies.


LANGUAGE IMAGERY: Shakespeare’s style is richly poetic.  In his plays the important characters speak in verse, while the minor characters use prose.  Language and imagery become an avenue of understanding in the plays of Shakespeare.  A wide variety of images and language patterns are used, largely to communicate the central message and themes of the playwright.

NATURE AND STORM SCENES:  The storm scenes are symbolic of moral discord.  They are five in total.  The storm dovetails personal conflict and external convulsion well.  The storm which has broken out in Lear’s mind is admirably fused with the description of the warring elements.   The external storm is itself a projection of his inner state which is expressed in the form of a single poetic reality.  Throughout the storm scenes Lear bears the main weight of suffering.  He is surrounded by human beings who are each used in a different way to illustrate and illuminate some aspect of his central character.  The Fool, Kent and Edgar bear some of his tragic burden: they show an insight into part of his tragic situation.  Gloucester also shows a parallel fate in his suffering and fall in fortunes.  During the storm, there is a profound sense of man’s infirmity, set against the power and violence of the elements.

It is within the Storm Scenes, in the company of three different types of mad people, that Lear penetrates through to the essential truth of human nature when it is stripped of the false trappings of sophistication.  In the half-naked Edgar he finds the image of ‘Unaccommodated man’.

Certainly, the Storm Scenes are the most dramatic in the play.  Here, the Fool leaves the play and Lear goes mad.  The paradox of the play ‘reason in madness’ is enacted in the storm scenes.

Gloucester’s first stage in moral growth occurs when he goes out into the storm to offer comfort and consolation to Lear.  It is this action which costs him his eyes.

ANIMAL OR BESTIAL IMAGERY:  There is the recurrent idea in the play of animals preying upon one another like monsters of the deep.  The animal or bestial imagery points us to the reality of human beings exploiting and destroying another for their own wicked ends.

Man and woman are continually referred to as beasts or monsters.  Goneril is referred to as ‘a sea monster’, ‘a serpent’, ‘a wolf’, ‘a vulture’, ‘a kite’.  In act III, Scene iv, Lear refers to the sisters as ‘pelican daughters’ who are feeding on their father’s blood.  Edgar calls his brother a ‘toad spotted villain’.

All this type of imagery suggests that when possessed by evil humans lose all trace of their humanity and become as beasts.

IMAGES OF SIGHT AND BLINDNESS: Much of the symbolism or imagery reflect two of the central ideas in the play – sight and blindness.  Since both protagonists begin at a stage of moral blindness with regard to the true nature of their children and of human nature in general, this type of imagery plays a hugely symbolic role in the play.

Shakespeare makes use of irony to dramatise the relationship between moral and physical blindness.  Irony serves several functions in the play.  It illustrates the profound discrepancy between the real nature of things and the mere appearance.  Irony is used to indicate blindness in characters.  Certain characters such as Gloucester, Lear and Edgar are essentially blind to the truth about themselves and others.  So as Lear banishes Kent, his loyal servant and the only person who will tell him the truth, he ironically prays to Apollo, the god of light.

Edmund uses a false letter to frame his brother, then adopts the role of confidante to Edgar by advising him to stay out of Gloucester’s way.  Edgar is blind to the existence of evil and corruption in nature and particularly in his brother Edmund’s nature and so we hear him ironically telling Edmund how, ‘Some villain has done me wrong’ (Act I, Scene ii).

The play is full of ironic reversals: Gloucester gains full insight only after he has been physically blinded; Lear, King of Britain, learns his wisest lessons on human nature and on life, in the context of extreme degradation and in the company of The Fool.

Irony functions as a moral commentary on the wicked characters and is another means of illustrating in a graphic manner the profoundly destructive quality of evil.





An Analysis of the characters of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

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Christy:  At First Weak, Timid

When we first meet Christy it is by way of report.  He is presented as a tramp, “a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch groaning wicked like a maddening dog”, or a “queer fellow above, going mad — “.   When we first see him he is, according to the stage direction, a ‘slight young man – very fired and frightened and dirty’.  The first impression we get is one of timidity and fear: in short he is a coward but not totally lacking in spirit.  His retort to Michael’s accusation that maybe he is wanted for “robbing and stealing” is given with a flash of family pride: ”And I the son of a strong farmer”.  He relaxes as the others convince him that he is in a house safe from the ‘polis’, and begins to respond to their interest in the curiosity about his origins.  Was he the victim of bailiffs, agents, landlords; did he indulge in alchemy, marry three wives, fight “wars for Kruger”?  Pegeen’s impatient “you did nothing at all” provokes the required confession: “I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week”.

The “lie” Begins

He is now definitely to be feared and respected, simply by what he has said. The hero in Christy is about to emerge; he is ‘a lad with the sense of Solomon’: “the peelers is fearing him”, he ‘should be great terror when his temper’s roused’, brave enough to “face a foxy divil — on the flags of hell”, and to stand up to “the loosed khaki cut-throats, or the walkin dead”.

The “lie” Takes Effect

Christy can hardly believe his ears: “Well glory be to God!” is all he can exclaim at the character the others are building for him.  When he is left alone with Pegeen who describes him as a “fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow” his amazed reply is: “Is it me?”.  She further likens him to Owen Roe O’Sullivan (Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain) the greatest of the Kerry poets, ‘a fine fiery fellow with great rages’ and passions.

Synge’s Sympathy For The” Lie”

The local response to Christy’s appearance on the scene highlight for us the drabness of such rural living, where the imagination has been starved, and there is longing for some excitement. Behind the obvious comedy in this scene we see a certain pathos: Synge was most definitely not out of sympathy with such peasant people (After all he had forsaken his own kind for their company).   

Christy Given Romantic Image

Pegeen’s mention of Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain reveals much about her character: he was a rather rakish fellow, a womaniser and an eloquent poet.  She wants excitement and is prepared to defy the ‘priesteen’ and the powers of Rome to get it.  Maybe Christy is a re-incarnation of the poet – that is what she wants to believe.  Self-deception it is but understandable in the circumstances.  She and the others want a hero and Christy wants to be that hero.

So Christy has now progressed from tramp and coward to poetic hero, which brings us to the end of Act 1.  By this stage it is obvious that Synge has created a mock-hero, a parody of the hero of Celtic epic literature.

Christy Settles in To His New Image

At the start of Act II Christy feels quite at home and would be prepared to remain here ‘his whole life talking out with swearing Christians – never a day’s work’.  The emphasis is on talking rather than working.  He is aware now that his talent is verbal with a licence to lie or, at best, to bend and decorate the truth.

Heroes Must Prove Themselves

His status as hero is confirmed at this point by the arrival of the local girls bearing gifts, and by the Widow Quin’s announcement that she has entered him ‘in the sports below for racing, leaping, pitching’.  All heroes must be put to the test: it is a feature of the epic poem that the hero must prove his prowess and strength in epic combat.  For Christy this is to be done in the more humble local sports.

Comedy In Parody

The girls get their reward for bringing presents when Christy once again tells the story of his homicide (‘da-slaying’).  His new found confidence is reflected in the telling.  Now we have mime to enhance the comic absurdity.  There is even comedy in the “weapons” used; a chicken bone and mug replace the mighty weapons of the traditional hero.

Temporary Set Back For Christy

This comic episode ends with the return of Pegeen who bristles at the sight of other women, especially Widow Quin, making free and easy with her man.  They are dismissed imperiously and Christy receives a verbal punishing for his vanity.  “You’ll be shut of no jeopardy no place if you go talking with a pack wild girls”.   This provokes a great outburst of self-pity from Christy which softens the heart of Pegeen, making her realise how lucky she is to have found a lad with “a mighty spirit in him and a gamy heart”.

Power Of The “Lie” Again

Once again she is under the spell of Christy’s poetry, its rhythms and imagery: “it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways, when the night is down”, “ drawn to the cities where you’s hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch”, “but I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I’m thinking as the moon of dawn”, “the way I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us do arise to hope or judgement with the saints of God”.

Comedy Of Christy’s Victory’ Over Shawn

Christy is now given and opportunity to act the hero.  Shawn Keogh, that representative of ‘respectability and conformity’, has to be confronted and humiliated.  Our new hero enjoys inflicting this humiliation on Shawn Keogh: he himself had often suffered similarly at the hands of his own father.  At the height of his heroic success Christy is suddenly brought back to earth with a bump when he sees “the walking spirit of my murdered da”, “that ghost of hell”.

Another Side To Christy By His Father

Ironically Christy in hiding has to suffer the humiliation of hearing his father sarcastically describe the real Christy:

“An ugly young streeler with a murderous gob”

“a dirty stuttering lout”

“a lier on walls, a talker of folly, a man you’d see stretched the half of the day in the brown ferns with his belly to the sun”.

“he’d be fooling over little birds – or making mugs at his own self in the bit of glass – – -“.

“if he seen a red petticoat coming swinging over the hill, he’d be off to hide in the sticks… “

“a poor fellow that would get drunk on the smell of a pint”

“the laughing joke of every female woman”

“the loony of Mahon’s”

This is not exactly the character reference that Christy would give and had given to himself! An interesting point to note, however, is that the father has a ‘power’ of words himself!

Christy Becomes ‘The Playboy’

Once again Synge deglamourises the peasant and his lifestyle, reality keeping a firm grip on fantasy.  The cult of the hero needs to be exposed for what it is; gratuitous violence masquerading as bravery.  (Synge was a pacifist and was appalled by the violence of his own day and the false image of Ireland and its people that was being manufactured to support political ideas).  The Widow Quin dubs Christy sarcastically ‘the walking Playboy of the Western World’.  Christy is now in the hands of the Widow Quin and she being the practical person she is cashes in on his fear of exposure.  Since she cannot have him for herself she will demand a fee for his silence: ’give me a right of way I want, and a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas’.  The Act ends with Christy half-reassured that he has bribed the Widow into silence, and off he goes to his greatest test as hero, indeed the traditional test of all heroes.

Christy: Proven Hero At Last without ‘Lies’

In Act III Christy successfully proves himself at the races winning all before him, so when he returns to the Shebeen in triumph he is master of all.  There is no limit to his courage and confidence now.

Pegeen Abandons Herself To His Power

He quite overpowers Pegeen – the first time she has ever softened, she ‘the fright of seven townlands for my biting tongue’.  He raises her to such a level of passion that she is prepared to abandon everything for this ‘raggle-taggle gipsy man’, who according to Father Reilly would ‘capsize the stars’.  Pegeen becomes a ‘heathen daughter’ and renounces her engagement to Shawn Keogh ‘that quaking blackguard’.  Christy obliges by chasing him off and Michael gives his approval and blessing to both Pegeen and Christy.

Fantasy is Finally Driven Out By Reality

At that point Christy’s final test begins.  His father, ‘a raving maniac’, bursts in and attacks Christy with a stick.  The spell, which had mesmerised them all, is suddenly broken.  The hero becomes the victim who is to be sacrificed for the people.  Pegeen dismisses Christy with ‘Quit off from this’.  After he has chased his father outside and apparently killed him, he returns to find that the Widow Quin is the only one who still wants him.  This he passionately rejects with the infamous line – ‘What’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts’ – (Cue: Riots!).  He mistakenly thinks that the ‘killing’ will restore him to Pegeen’s favour but he soon learns that there is a world of difference between a ‘gallows story and a dirty deed’.  Humiliation, as the women try to put petticoats on him, is followed by final rejection by Pegeen who places the rope on him.  Shawn is triumphant, ‘Come on to the peelers till they stretch you now’.  Respectability, self-interest – the usual social norms return.  Christy now realises that he is finished here, his future is elsewhere and when his father comes back from the dead again, the two are re-united in a new relationship which makes them independent of the society that had made Christy into a hero and a poet.  Like the bard of old he is destined for a higher, if lonelier, existence, one preferable to village respectability.  ‘The thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime ….’

The Cuchulainn Parallel

One commentator on Synge, Declan Kiberd, in a very interesting book Synge and the Irish Language, sees a parallel between Christy and his story and the legend of Cuchulainn.  He sees it as mock-heroic satire that the  ‘Godlike Cuchulainn should re-appear in a feckless peasant’.  For Pegeen Christy evokes the ancient world of the poet and its heroic virtues, ‘it’s the poets and your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages ‘;  ‘You with a kind of quality name, the like of what you’d find on the great powers and potentates of France and Spain’; ‘the like of a King of Norway or the Eastern World’.

In youth Cuchulainn was athletic, handsome, articulate, attractive to women, a leader of men.  Christy is the opposite, ‘cowering in a ditch’, ‘a lier on walls’, ‘a slight young man’, ‘a talker of folly’, ‘the laughing joke of every female woman’ – all of which is to change through the power of a lie.

Christy’s father tried to marry him off to the Widow Casey.  The men of Ulster wished to marry off Cuchulainn to protect their own women from him.  Cuchulainn is victorious using the sword of King Conchubair just as Christy is victorious in the borrowed clothes of Shawn Keogh.  Cuchulainn woos Emer against her father’s wishes.  Emer has another suitor just as Pegeen has Shawn Keogh.  Both these suitors retire afraid of their opponents’ strength.  Cuchulainn and Christy triumph at games and win their loved ones.  Christy’s ‘great rages’ echo Cuchulainn’s great battle-rages.  Cuchulainn meets the warrior druidess to advise and prepare him for his struggle; Christy meets the Widow Quin, who also advises for a ‘fee’.

Comedy And Satire In The Parody

But Synge’s purpose is to make a mock-hero of Christy, probably a response on his part to the determined efforts of his contemporaries to manufacture super-peasants for a political ideal.  The only relic of the real hero left is the ‘gift of the gab’ upon which Christy is solely dependent.  The ancient hero is reincarnated in a ‘feckless peasant’ struggling to escape the grinding poverty and dullness of life in the West of Ireland.  For Synge there is no glamour in such harsh reality but a little fantasy can bring humour and escape, if only temporarily, so that not only Christy but the people of Mayo can go ‘romancing’, he for ‘a romping lifetime’, they for a few days at least.

The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike. The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike.


At First, Realistic and Strong

Like all the other villagers Pegeen is trapped by rural convention which declares self-interest and respectability to be the social norms.  It is ironic that when we first meet her she is preparing for her marriage to Shawn Keogh who most typifies this self-interest and respectability.  She is going to make the best of the world she finds herself in.  From the start we can see that she is strong-willed and dominant.

Latent Romantic

She has no love for Shawn Keogh whom she addresses contemptuously as Shawneen.  Indeed she laments the lack of eligible and romantic young men in the district which can only boast of such as “Red Linahan, has a squint in his eye, the Patcheen has a limp in his heel, or the mad Mulrannies …”  Her idea of a man is one who has the courage to break the law and tell stories of Holy Ireland – a Daneen Sullivan or masrcus Qwuin.  The absence of any romance in her life and the absence of any fire or passion in Shawn Keogh are facts that she had had to live with and, God help her, will have to continue to live with fore the future.  She is hard-headed enough, however, to accept Shawn as a poor substitutue for a real husband but he is better than no man at all.

Character of a Heroine

So the first part of Act I establishes her strength of character and her spirit: she can handle all the men, from her father, Michael, to Shawn Keogh.   She has no fear of authority, ecclesiastical or civil: ‘Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly’ she sneers at Shawn, and ‘Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler’ shows her admiration for one with courage enough to stand up to and get the better of authority.

First Meeting With Christy: Contempt Turns to Admiration

Into such a world ruled by self-interest and respectability stumbles Christy, young, tired and frightened.  Their interest is immediately aroused (a ‘strainseir’ is always an object of great curiosity in an Irish village.)  Pegeen’s contempt for men is still evident when she contemptuously challenges Christy: ‘You did nothing at all’, ‘Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of the broom?’  Christy’s confession that he had killed his ‘poor father’ for striking him takes her aback.  Suddenly her attitude changes: here is a man at last, another Daneen Sullivan or Marcus Quin, who has had the courage to challenge and overcome authority by killing his father.

Pegeen Falls Under Spell of The ‘Lie’: Romance Stirs

Christy’s ‘lie’ begins to work its magic on them all except Shawn Keogh (he isn’t the type that needs some excitement in life so he remains outside the spell).  This gauche, (awkward), young man is beginning to appear as a potential knight-in-shining-armour or hero come to snatch her from the jaws of her fate.  So, unwittingly she becomes an agent in the build-up of Christy into something larger than life.  Fantasy is at work.  The strong-willed, sharp-tongued young woman begins to melt as romance at last enters her life.  All thoughts of self-interest and respectability are abandoned as she loses her head to the stranger.

Pegeen’s Jealousy Evident

It is ironic that Christy is affected differently at first: at the end of Act I and the start of Act II he relishes the new found respectability and comfort.  But this isn’t allowed top last for long.  Pegeen’s jealousy temporarily breaks the spell when she finds other women tampering with Christy, and she sadistically enjoys his terror at her mention of him ‘swaying and swiggling at the butt of a rope – in great anguish, getting your death’.

Romance Continues To Hold Her

The spell re-establishes its hold over her when Christy responds with his self-pitying yet unwittingly passionate poetry: ‘it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns’ – ‘the cities where you’d hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch’.  She even further builds up his character, attributing to him ‘a mighty spirit and a gamy heart’, which he shortly afterwards displays before the Widow Quin and Shawn Keogh when the latter comes to bribe him to leave.  ‘For what is it you’re wanting to get shut of me?’ he arrogantly asks Shawn.  Pegeen is not present  to see Christy’s cringing reaction top the appearance of his ‘murdered da’.  This must give Christy the necessary, if subconscious, incentive to prove himself at the sports to consolidate his position with Pegeen.

 Pegeen Abandons Herself To New Christy

After his successes at the sports Christy returns to the Shebeen with Pegeen positively aglow with admiration and love.  In the love sequence that follows she abandons herself completely to Christy’s verbal hypnosis.  She can hardly believe her own ears when she speaks, ‘And to think its me talking sweetly …. Well, the heart’s a wonder – there won’t be our like in Mayo for gallant lovers….’  Even the dispensation ‘in gallous Latin’ can’t dissuade her now – she belongs to the ‘young gaffer who’d capsize the stars’ and who indeed had capsized her world.  To her father she is a ‘heathen daughter’.  In her ecstasy she really enjoys humiliating Shawn Keogh and when Christy chases him out she passionately announces to her father: ‘Bless us now, for I swear to God I’ll wed him, and I’ll not renege’.

Pegeen: The Woman Scorned

With the re-entry of Old Mahon and his claim that all Christy had given him was a ‘tap of a loy’, suddenly Pegeen snaps out of her trance and turns impetuously on Christy, ‘And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all’.  Her pride has been hurt and she feels publicly humiliated and in her rage she abandons him to fate.  ‘Take him on from this or I’ll set the young lads to destroy him here’.

Fantasy At The End

Ironically she does not realise that she has just provided Christy with his greatest opportunity yet to prove himself a hero.  Old Mahon’s ‘dying’ yell finally dispels that last trace of fantasy.  Reality returns: the villagers are one again against the intruder that would bring the law and trouble to them.

Pegeen: Tragic Figure

Pegeen must lead in purging the community of this menace and to her eternal shame she realises too late what she had done: she has freed Christy from any last ties that would have impeded his progress ‘to the stars’.  He doesn’t need her now, whereas she does need him, but she has lost and he has won.  She is indeed almost the tragic heroine at this stage; the Dido deserted by her Aeneas.

Note: The character of Pegeen is said to have many of the qualities of Molly Allgood (Maire O’Neill), Synge’s fiancée, with whom he had a rather tempestuous relationship.  She played the part of Pegeen in the first production and, like her, was independent and wayward, temperamental and warm-hearted, restless and very ambitious, and in the end lost her Playboy to death.

The Widow Quin The Widow Quin


The Widow Quin (Is there a Newcastle West connection?!) is presented as a worldly, materialistic woman whose life is governed by shrewd opportunism rather than passion.  Though she does put her eye on Christy it is not passion but rather self-interest that motivates her.  She has ‘buried her children and destroyed her man’ and has few illusions left about life.  She is the least affected by the spell of Christy’s charisma, except for Shawn Keogh of course, who is deaf to the magic of Christy’s words.  For a short while she does fancy herself as a rival to Pegeen, and the only ‘fault’ in her character is that she underestimates the strength of Christy’s love for Pegeen, it is a love to which she could never aspire.

Fit Rival To Pegeen

When we meet her first she is obviously someone to be reckoned with: Pegeen bristles at her entry and feels threatened.  Whereas any of the men in the play would have been easily subdued with a few sharp words from Pegeen, the Widow is impervious to her scorn.  Though Pegeen does best her in their first encounter, the Widow doesn’t leave without a good parting shot that unsettles Pegeen, reminding her in Christy’s presence of her engagement to Shawn Keogh.

Widow As Comic Agent

When we meet her she has Christy to herself with the chorus of village girls.  With a few direct personal questions she has found out from him all about his background, his father, and the reason for the ‘gallous deed’.  Her comic sense encourages Christy to tell his story this time with mime, which puts them all into such good humour that Susan and Sara suggest that he would make a fine second husband for the Widow Quin.

Further Challenge to Pegeen

The comedy abruptly ends when a jealous and frosty-faced Pegeen enters.  Once again as she leaves the Widow Quin has another fine parting shot for Pegeen as she reminds Christy that she, the Widow Quin, and not Pegeen had thought of entering him for the sports.  She certainly has the ability to bring out the worst in Pegeen!

A Woman of Action: Understands Human Nature

She deals with the three principal male characters in one short period: she barters with Shawn Keogh for her services in rescuing Pegeen from Christy, she flatters Christy, and then she coaxes Old Mahon into leaving but not before getting information about Christy from him.  This episode shows what an important role she has in the play: her main function is to initiate action and to keep it going.

  • Her threat to take Christy spurs Pegeen into action thus declaring her interest in Christy.
  • She enters Christy for the sports thus giving him the opportunity to prove himself a hero.
  • She controls Old Mahon thus keeping the action going as she wants it.
  • She manipulates Shawn Keogh which results in Christy looking a fine fellow, and she better off with his bribes.
  • She again sends Old Mahon off as Christy hasn’t yet been fully established as hero.
  • When Christy is finally exposed it is she alone who tries to save him from the anger of the village men and Pegeen, and this is ironic considering her reputation for being self-centred and heartless.

Widow has her Good Points

When Christy describes the Widow Casey in such horrific terms with her ‘limping leg’ and ‘blinded eye’ and her ‘noted misbehaviour’; she is ‘a hag with a tongue on her has the crows and seabirds scattered’, the Widow Quin seems positively angelic by comparison.  Earlier Christy had remarked on the ‘two fine women fighting for the likes of me’.  So the Widow Quin is a very presentable-looking woman even though her character is assassinated by the jealous Pegeen who slanders her with rearing ‘a black ram at her breast’ and ‘shaving the foxy skipper from France for a threepenny bit’.  Never does the Widow’s language take on the venomous tone and brutal imagery of Pegeen’s, though she can hurt when she wants to: Pegeen she says is ‘a girl you’d see itching and scratching – with a stale stink of poteen on her’.  In a way she is proved right in the end – Pegeen is not fit company for the new Christy, and it is Pegeen, not the resourceful Widow, who will tragically weep at his departure.

christy mahon (1)

Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen



Before Ibsen, European theatre was at its lowest ebb. It was felt that theatre no longer reflected serious issues. Rather, theatre had become a vehicle for entertainment. Theatre in the early nineteenth century (pre Ibsen) included historical costume drama, melodrama and the Scribean ‘well made’ play. The Scribean ‘well made’ play was first created by the playwright Eugene Scribe (1791-1861).  The Scribean play was a very simplistic problem play that followed a linear pattern.  Act 1 involved the exposition; Act 2 the crisis and Act 3 saw a resolution and a happy ending. The following are some typical characterisations of the Scribean ‘well made’ play:

  • No depth of psychological characterisation
  • Over elaborate intricacies of plot
  • Playwright was seen as entertainer
  • No individualised characters, instead there were traditional ‘stock types’ presented in each Scribean play – the villain, the woman with a past etc.
  • Allegiance to a happy ending which affirms the status quo of society

Ibsen, having come into contact with Zola’s ideas through the Danish critic Georges Brandes changed all this in his plays.  Zola advocated a move towards problem drama and he challenged dramatists  to be truthful and to represent reality truthfully. For Zola, the realist writer should concern himself with everyday reality. Ibsen heeded Zola’s challenge. He combined the classical Greek Tragedy and the Scribean ‘well made’ play to create his own distinctive ‘theatre of realism’.

A Doll’s House was first premiered in Copenhagen in 1879 in the Royal Theatre.  Ibsen’s plays were written for a predominantly middle-class audience.

The Characters

Within the play there are three major groups of characters:

Torvald Helmer and Dr. Rank possess inherited values and they represent the social masquerade within the society of the time. Torvald remains a bewildered or embittered victim of social determinism while Rank is a victim of biological determinism.

Nora is both a ‘doll child’ and a ‘doll wife’ in this social masquerade. However, in Act 3 she succeeds in rejecting the masquerade.

Mrs. Linde and Krogstad learn to move beyond the masquerade and form a relationship based on truth. Contrast Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s relationship of truth to Nora and Torvald’s marriage.

 The most significant minor character in the play is Anne-Marie. She represents the working class within ‘A Doll’s House’. She is marginalized in terms of economics, class and social morality. Anne-Marie’s character causes us as readers to ask some central questions: Is Anne-Marie a foil for Nora? Is Ibsen advocating liberation for all women or liberation only for some?  ‘A Doll’s House’, therefore, can be described as a feminist text but perhaps it is not feminist enough.

 General Vision and Viewpoint

Ibsen’s contemporaries quite correctly interpreted A Doll’s House as a swingeing attack on conventional bourgeois marriage (although importantly not on marriage per se). It was intended to be a profoundly revolutionary play, deepening the critique of patriarchal attitudes he had initiated in Pillars of Society. As Ibsen saw it, women would spearhead the revolt against the repressive conventions of contemporary society. Men were far more likely to be dominated by the social prejudices of their day because of their role as breadwinner and provider. That is why Nora consciously acts the part of a doll wife, whereas Torvald unthinkingly lives out his role as the authoritarian husband. By the same token, that also explains why Nora achieves insight at the end of the play, while her husband remains bewildered and confused.

 Despite the conscious provocation within it, the play closes on an optimistic note. Nora has left with the positive aim of discovering who and what she is and what she can become. Meanwhile, there is at least a slender ray of hope that Torvald may yet achieve some degree of insight once he has recovered from the initial shock of his wife’s departure. The question he articulates at the end sums up that hope and the difficulty implicit within it: ‘The miracle of miracles…..?’

 It is interesting that the play begins with the door opening to let Helmer into the house, and it concludes with Nora slamming the door in his face.  Throughout the play a certain number of decisions have been taken and choices made by the characters.  For the first time in her life, Nora forces Helmer to face the truth about their marriage.  Roles are reversed.  She recognises that, ‘our home has never been anything but a playroom, where we have never exchanged a serious word on a serious subject’.

 She leaves him, claiming she needs to be freed from the marriage in order to educate herself, and to learn to think about life and its issues.  Helmer is seen as a tragic figure.  He sincerely loved his wife even though he has failed to express it well.  He is left abandoned and alone to look after the family and face the ensuing scandal.  There is a sense that both people need to readdress certain basic issues in their lives such as the reality of what is involved in marriage.

 Visual Symbolism

The play is full of visual suggestions that provide a comment on the action or underline a particular facet of a given character’s responses. We see something of Nora’s extravagance in the Christmas presents she has bought and the excessive tipping of the porter. But in always buying the cheapest clothes we see her resourcefulness in making do. In eating forbidden macaroons she shows her defiance of Torvald, while in asking his advice about her costume for a fancy dress party, we see her skill in flattering and cajoling him. In showing her new silk stockings to Dr Rank, we see her willingness to flirt and exploit her sexuality, but not to the point where it becomes explicit. In her performance of the tarantella, we have an image of the dance of death, an image of the black thoughts filling her mind. The image is reinforced when she pulls a black shawl over her head before attempting to leave the house to commit suicide. Finally, her change of clothes and the donning of everyday dress underlines her determination in the last act of the play to face up to the prosaic reality of her marriage for the very first time.

 Significance of Doors

Ibsen’s first stage direction (p. 23) is both detailed and significant. There are multiple references to ‘doors’, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the open and closed possibilities within the play. Ibsen frames the play with references to ‘doors’. Nora leaves through the same door, a changed individual, at the end of the play.  (Note again the stage direction p. 104.)

 Living Room

When first confronted with the living room it is hard to find much significance attached to it. It is said to be attractive – as a room in a doll’s house is likely to be. The piano (music), the engravings (art) and the books (literature) suggest that at least one of the inhabitants has cultural interests. That is about all. We should realise that there is difference between being a reader (secondary text) and a spectator or member of the audience (primary text).[1] The latter will neither be immediately aware of what is behind the door in the background nor of the fact that it is ‘a winter’s day’ because, after all, they have not read the stage directions!

 However, when we reread the play (highly advised to reread it!!!!), the setting takes on a greater significance. We can see that the room is an expression of Helmer’s taste rather than Nora’s taste. He is the ruler in this household and he is the one who explicitly voices his aesthetic interests. Therefore, as Helmer is gradually revealed as a man hiding behind his socially impeccable façade, the living room takes on other qualities. The properties we took to be signs of genuine cultural interests now appear to be merely status objects, social icons. Like the play title, Ibsen thus invests the setting with a concealed meaning.

 We may also ascribe the fact that the whole action takes place in one and the same room as a sign that Nora is imprisoned in a doll’s house existence – although the room has ‘no fewer than four doors, one of which leads to a fifth and a sixth’. This raises the question of whether this is an open or a closed environment.

 The Christmas Tree

The tree is a central symbol within the play. The Christmas tree may be seen as a symbol of family happiness and security, a natural product of the forests, which has been prevented from full growth, cut or transplanted, then decorated in a domestic environment, like Nora herself. The Christmas tree is dressed and then stripped – which links it with the later fancy dress ball and the costume Nora first dons and later discards… The ‘real’ tree for the children is to be the dressed tree, not its unadorned version. And this links the notion of dress and costume to that of deception and masquerade, which in turn links with Nora’s deception of Torvald about borrowing money and Dr. Rank’s disguising for twenty long years his true feelings for Nora. This, in turn, makes us aware that some kinds of deception, like hiding the unadorned Christmas tree, can be for potentially good purposes.

 The Theme of Patriarchy

A Doll’s House is a comment on the patriarchal society in which it was written. Nora is enslaved by her economic dependency. Ibsen comments on women’s economic dependency on males through Nora. Nora states, ‘a wife can’t borrow money without her husband’s consent.’  However, Nora’s selfless deed for Torvald was, ‘something to be proud and happy about’. She felt empowered because it was, ‘almost like being a man’.

Torvald sees Nora as a pet, an acquisition.  In Act 1, Nora acquiesces to her doll life. Nora is childish in her desire to please him.  Torvald’s pet names are indicative of the balance of power between Torvald and Nora – ‘my little squanderbird, my little songbird, my poor helpless little darling, my little Miss Independent, my clandestine little sweetheart….’  Beneath Torvald’s superficial sweetness to Nora in the pet names he uses, there is an undercurrent of something more sinister. Through these pet names, Torvald is constantly jibing and inadvertently insulting, ‘his little Miss Independent’.

There is never a genuine reciprocal conversation between Nora and Torvald until the final Act.  Contrast Nora and Torvald’s use of language.  Torvald’s use of language in Act 1 and 3 is the language of male discourse, the language of duty and instruction. Nora’s language in Act 1 is the language of female discourse, of petitioning and helplessness.

Within this patriarchal society we witness female instinct pitted against masculine regulative thinking. Male rationality is pitted against female intuition. In effect, we witness the suppressed female versus the suppressing male.

 The central theme of the play hinges on the ‘two kinds of conscience’ Ibsen speaks of in his preliminary notes: Nora’s individualist ethics versus Helmer’s socially determined ones.  The conflict is as old as drama itself and can be traced all the way back to Sophocles’ Antigone. To Helmer Nora’s forgery is a criminal act that cannot be excused; to Nora it is an act fully justified by the circumstances.  Aware that she has done it to save her husband’s life, Nora is even proud of her action. For once she has been able to do something for her husband – ironically it must be without his knowing it. The forgery is both an act of love and an act of independence, and it is difficult to say what is most important to Nora.

 Reflecting the views of a male society, everyone sees Nora as a child to be cared for like a doll. Limited to a family environment, she has few possibilities to satisfy her need for self-respect. Even her children are taken care of by others.  No wonder she relishes her secret knowledge that she has performed an independent act of extreme altruism, an act that is her pride not least because it creates a balance within the marriage. Seemingly totally dependent on her husband, Nora knows that at least once in his life Helmer has been totally dependent on her.

Sample Essay:  Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House can be interpreted as a patriarchal play’.   Discuss.

 Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism and his play ‘A Doll’s House’ possess a dominant patriarchal theme. Nora, the female protagonist, needs to break the perpetual cycle of living a ‘doll’s life’.  The Nora under the dominant rule of her patriarchal husband is girlishly innocent, however intuitively knows Helmer’s psyche. The play can and has been interpreted as a patriarchal play. However, I prefer to concentrate on Ibsen’s more central task, which is the portrayal of human beings.

Ibsen’s attempt to transform Nora from ‘twittering skylark’ (p.24) to an authentic human being is gradual. Various visual motifs within the play illustrate Nora’s enslaved dependency. In Act Two Helmer’s possession of the key is highly significant:

 ‘Mrs Linde – And your husband has the key?

Nora – Yes, he always keeps it.’ (p.75)

Essentially the main message portrayed in this scene is Helmer’s power to unlock the truth. Nora’s eating of macaroons is a visual defiance of Torvald’s control.

The following highlights the notion of progression and metamorphosis within the play. In Act One Nora presents her longing to say ‘Bloody Hell’ to Torvald. With the rehearsal dance of the tarantella Nora succeeds in visually saying ‘Bloody Hell’. Her defiance of Torvald’s guidelines is proof of her first stage in her metamorphosis. The Pygmalion motif is strong in this scene also:

 ‘I’d never have believed it. You’ve forgotten everything I taught you.’

 Mrs. Linde is a major agent in the plot. Her presence acts as a foil for Nora. Tornqvist states that Mrs. Linde ‘the disinherited widow’ contrasts strikingly to Nora ‘the deliberately disinherited widow’. David Thomas believes that each map out their future in diametrically opposed ways. Indeed, Mrs. Linde finds a marriage based on truth that will not negate her autonomy. Just as Linde seeks to redefine her position in society she implores Nora to do likewise.

 In Act Two Mrs. Linde states, ‘oh we’ll soon put that right – the stitchings come away.’ Mrs. Linde restitches Nora’s dress in a metaphorical sense also. She restitches Nora and the plot. The ‘Nora’ who dances the dance of the tarantella in the restitched dress is an altogether different character to the Nora who danced in Capri and was then truly Torvald’s ‘capricious little Capricienne’.

 With the symbolic slamming of the door Ibsen reveals two things. Primarily the impromptu divorce ceremony is finally completed. However, Nora also is transformed. Kierkegaard’s philosophy implores us to confront the possibilities of attaining authentic selfhood, as does Ibsen in his portrayal of Nora.  Kiekegaard’s book the ‘Either/Or’ (1843) was a major treatise on the crucial role of decision and choice in human existence. Ibsen explores these roles of decision and choice through Nora and her attempts to gain authentic selfhood within this patriarchal society.

Nora succeeds in creating her own subjective truth: ‘I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life’. She has metamorphosed into a Kierkegaardian existentialist. The dread in making that leap of faith has been overridden by her willingness to ‘educate’ herself.

There is no doubt in my mind that the woman question is a metaphor for individual freedom. Templeton in her work Ibsen’s Women (Chapter 5:‘The Poetry of Feminism’) talks about the contamination of feminism in Ibsen’s play. Richard Gilman believes that ‘A Doll’s House’ is pitched beyond sexual differences. The essential task in this play is the description of humanity. Nora states, ‘I believe I am first and foremost a human being’.

Critics argue how can Nora evolve from ‘twittering skylark’ to Soren Kierkegaard in a skirt? The answer is simple. Nora, the existentialist heroine, is latent in her character from the beginning. The soliloquies play a major role in charting her development.

Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism provides a forum for debate. Long after the redundancy of the ‘Scribean well-made play’, Ibsen’s theatre surpasses and transcends this formula.. The reason for Ibsen’s success is his continuation after the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter.  Torvald’s moral weakness is exposed.  His true nature stands clear. He is depicted in the final scenes not as the noble altruist of Nora’s ‘miracle of miracles’ but rather a shallow egoist. The absence of what Todorov describes as the fifth stage of narrative development, the reinstatement of the initial equilibrium, ensures that the play ends resonating with questions rather than answers. What faces Nora after the slamming of the door?  Will Nora feel ‘unspeakably empty’ like Mrs. Linde? There is no ‘happy ever after’ in Ibsen’s masterpiece.  Instead he believes that as readers we are collaborators. ‘The real end is found outside the frame; the poet has indicated the direction we have to go, it is now our task, each for himself to imagine it.’

Works Cited

Ibsen, H., A Doll’s House (with commentary and notes), Methuen Publishing Limited, London, 1994

Templeton, Joan, Ibsen’s Women, Chapter 5: The Poetry of Feminism,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gilman, Richard,  The Making of Modern Drama: A study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke (New York, 1974).

Kierkegaard, S., Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), Victor Eremita (Editor). Alastair Hannay (Translator, Introduction), Penguin Classics:London, 1992.

Thomas, D., 1983. Henrik Ibsen. Macmillan Press.

Todorov, Egil, Ibsen-A Doll’s House, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Tornqvist, E., 1995. Ibsen: A Doll’s House. Cambridge University Press



[1] By primary text is meant everything that is verbalised in a performance, that is by dialogue; by secondary text that which is verbalised only in the drama text: stage and acting directions, play title, divisional markers (act, scene), cue designations, etc.



Speechless Without the Bard



The English language may have ‘seen better days’ but ‘for better or for worse’, even ‘blinking idiots’ still quote Shakespeare liberally, albeit without knowing it. Indeed, if it were not for these bon mots we’d be nearly speechless.

We have all come across Shakespeare in school, we may even have seen one of his plays on television or in the cinema, yet there are few of us – even those of few words – who don’t quote Shakespeare almost every day. Once in a while we know we’re doing so, but most of the time we use his words to season our speech without knowing the source. Some of his expressions have changed a little with 400 years of everyday use, though even these can easily be traced to him.

If this doesn’t make sense to you and you say, it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you think my point is without rhyme or reason and you say I’m a laughing stock or a blinking idiot or bloody minded or a rotten apple or a stony-hearted villain or even the devil incarnate, you are also quoting him. And if you bid me good riddance or send me packing or wish I was hoist with his own petard or dead as a doornailat one fell swoop – you are still quoting him.

When we say that it’s a mad world or not in my book or neither here nor there or last but not least, these phrases – and all the others in bold print here – are Shakespeare’s. And when we use such expressions such as poor but honest or as luck would have it or what’s done is done, we’re equally indebted to him. Whether you are holding your tongue or simply tongue-tied, you just can’t get away from the fact (the more fool you are) that you are quoting Shakespeare. But maybe that was the unkindest cut of all. And if you think this remark smells to heaven, you’re at it once more.

Be that as it may – and though you still insist that I’m living in a fool’s paradisewe can have too much of a good thing. And there we go quoting him again. For the long and the short of it is that we’d be nearly speechless without Shakespeare.

When we talk of someone showing his heels or having no stomach for a fight or leading a charmed life; when we speak of cold comfort or grim necessity or bag and baggage or the mind’s eye, we’re quoting him. When we refer to our salad days or our heart of hearts or our heart’s desire; when we deplore the beginning of the end we’re doing the same.

If we claim to be more sinned against than sinning; if we act more in sorrow than in anger; if our wish is father to the thought; if something we’ve lost has vanished into thin air, we’re borrowing from the Bard. If we refuse to budge an inch or suffer from green-eyed jealousy; if we’ve played fast and loose; if we’ve been a tower of strength or hoodwinked or in a pickle, we’re still doing so.

If you have knitted your brows or stood on ceremony or made a virtue of necessity or danced attendance on or laughed yourself into stitches or had short shrift, you’re using Shakespeare’s words. If you say you haven’t slept a wink or are as sound as a bell or can only die once or that your family is eating you out of house and home, you’re not being very original.

When you state that love is blind or there is method in his madness (or someone has made you mad) or the truth will come to light or the world is my oyster, you are also borrowing your bon mots from the Bard. If you have seen better days or think it is early days yet or high time; if you lie low till the crack of doom, because you suspect foul play; if you tell the truth and shame the devil, even if it involves your own flesh and blood and you believe the game is up, you are at the same game as before!

If you have your teeth set on edge or have a tongue in your head, then by Jove or Tut, tut or for goodness sake or what the dickens or but me no buts – it’s all one to me, for you are simply quoting Shakespeare.

Besides these and many more of our everyday phrases, we are also indebted to him for a host of words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, obscene, premeditated, reliance, allurement, alliance, antipathy, critical, armada, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, horrid, initiate, mediate, modest, vast and submerged are only a few that made their first appearance in his plays.

Indeed, it is obvious that Shakespeare was a man who loved to experiment with words. Most of all he had an extraordinary ability to write memorable combinations of words. Scores of his phrases, as we have seen, have entered the English language and some have even become clichés. One play alone, Hamlet, is a treasure house of ‘quotable quotes’ or, as someone once said, it is ‘full of quotations’! Among them are the following: Frailty thy name is woman!…..The primrose path of dalliance… Something is rotten in the state of Denmark  … Brevity is the soul of wit…… I must be cruel, only to be kind …  The rest is silence.

The English-speaking world is indeed indebted to William Shakespeare more than to any writer in any language who ever lived. “He was not of an age,” said his contemporary Ben Jonson, “but for all time”.

Adapted from an article by Paul Hurley in The Irish Times

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